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The challenges of sharing knowledge

How can we move from “info dump” to knowledge sharing?

Diving into my 1000+ unread feeds on Google Reader, I found Nancy White asking this question about knowledge sharing. I had to blog about this, rather than just make a comment. I am in the middle of reading a document that touches on this same idea of knowledge sharing. A few thoughts are surfacing from my reading, and I feel they are related to Nancy’s entry.

My preliminary thought is that people need to be trained – and encouraged – to share their thoughts. For some reason, it does not seem to come naturally to us.

Excuse the crude term, but we do mostly regurgitate knowledge to show that we, too, have understood such-and-such. This echoes the quote in the blog post. Once knowledge is captured in some form of documentation, there seems to be a reluctance to change it. This means that when someone has the courage to produce some snippet of knowledge to be shared, there can be a fear of change. “If I disagree with this point, will I make the author mad at me?” Or, as one of the comments on the blog indicated, we fear that our change or whatever will make us look stupid, and none of us want that, do we? Therefore, our knowledge bases risk stagnation, not development and growth.

To share thoughts, we need nurturing environments that encourage critical (constructive critical) thinking. Perhaps such places are too rare for comfort? Some people won’t need much encouragement to spout ideas right and left. Others will require lots of support before they comprehend that others really do want to know their thoughts about certain topics.

This brings in the people element. How do you add the people element to a purely electronic environment? Many networks today are only electronic with no face-to-face due to geographic constraints. They can be very successful, and the elements of a successful network have been researched by many. (I am not going into those details right now.)

The concept that people seek info from other people rather than documents or databases is discussed in the document I am reading (see the PPS at the end of this entry).

OK, I thought, do people prefer people to technology? What if they don’t have access to those people, but only to written resources? Do their natural instincts (to seek out people) prevent them from taking the extra steps to look into the written resources? Would they rather wait until a people opportunity came along, even if they had to wait a long, long time?

I have frequently seen people ask a discussion list a question rather than research discussion list archives or information on a related website. Sometimes this is just laziness or panic (deadline looming, can’t think straight, need answer now). Sometimes the written info is not easily accessible. Powerful networks and friendships can grow in a purely virtual, electronic environment, but not everyone knows that or feels comfortable with that. If you cannot introduce a real face-to-face gathering in the community, then you need to teach people that they can get value from the exchange of bits and bytes. It will take patience!

Making information easily accessible both in terms of availability and comprehension can also be demanding. Some networks may not have the competencies to lay out information in a manner that entices the reader into the information and inspires them to read on. That should not stop them from trying, of course. Well-structured knowledge bases or resources do require careful thought and planning on the part of the writers/producers of information. That can be tricky if all the writing and producing comes from an entire community with varying skills.

My thoughts do not really answer Nancy’s question about encouraging more participation on a particular wiki. My thoughts about training and encouraging all take time, and lots of it. I guess pathfinders and nurturers are required, someone to lead the way – the doing-by-example method. Maybe a bit of effort is required by the people in charge of a knowledge-sharing site or wiki? Maybe you need to go out and map the assets of the particular community and find out who your potential pathfinders and guides are? (For information about asset mapping, I can highly recommend starting with asset-mapping books by a dear friend of mine.) Guides is a good name. I was about to say moderators, but that implies censorship, which we don’t necessarily want. A guide could encourage and say, yes, please submit your ideas because they are important to the entire community.

Well, those are my thoughts for now. The whole concept of knowledge sharing fascinates and stumps me. I meet these challenges at work and in my various networks, as I am sure many of us do. As I read more and think more, I will share more thoughts. It may be a while before anything solidifies, but does that matter? After all, can’t blogging be an ongoing conversation where we share thoughts and ideas, building them on top of each other, and – oh! – sharing our knowledge? 🙂

PS The document I am reading is someone’s private paper for a school project. I cannot discuss details, but I can share the brief reference I made, and of course, the ideas that it inspired in my own mind.

PPS For this idea about “people prefering people”, the author references “The Strength of Weak Ties You Can Trust: The Mediating Role of Trust in Effective Knowledge Transfer”, which is a 2004 article by Daniel Z. Levin and Rob Cross in Management Science, vol. 50, no. 11, pp. 1477-1490. (Note: I have not read this resource.)